There has always been something of this unreality about Trump’s behavior in the presidency. From the very beginning, it has seemed that Trump almost fully inhabits a boorish, narcissistic psychodrama playing in his head. Through the power of his personality and celebrity, he has been able to draw others into that fantasy world for decades, and through the power of the presidency he has now been able to project it onto the real world and draw yet more followers into it.
This hasn’t left Trump simply dysfunctional in the presidency. He has proven to have a solid political sense and a nose for where his voters are. And he made some good appointments and some policy moves that any Republican president would have been proud of. And yet, the entire time, if you had spoken to people around Trump, you would have heard mind-boggling stories of their direct experiences with him—tales of a president bizarrely disconnected, obsessive, impervious to information, fixated on personal loyalty, endlessly repeating patent nonsense.
All of this somehow held together for his first three years in office. It often took unprecedented acts of insolence and insubordination from his staff, and of course he was still an outrageously irresponsible president. But he averted catastrophe. Then, however, came the year of plague and of election, when Trump’s escapism and unwillingness to face reality became untenable. He tried to talk the pandemic out of existence and then to wish away the election results. But the yawning distance between his fantasy world and the real world finally became unbridgeable.
This is what we are seeing play out now, and what was most disturbing about Wednesday’s events. The riot at the Capitol itself was inexcusable, and we can hope that at least some of those involved will be prosecuted and punished. But more troubling by far was the way in which their actions were embedded in a fantasy spun up by conspiracists, and especially the way in which the President of the United States took up his place in that fantasy world and sought to govern from within it.
In his tweets and video statement on Wednesday, Trump asked the Capitol rioters to go home while also praising them and thanking them. You could almost see him struggling to separate his fantasy world from the real world and proving unable to do it. He seems plainly incapable of performing his job at this point as a result, and even more of the people around him than usual have said so since Wednesday morning.
The curious power and appeal of Trump’s conspiracism is deeply intertwined with its irresponsibility. At its core is a form of self-pity. The president blames others for disrespecting and abusing him, and therefore refuses both to take ownership of his obligations and to face reality. This has proven an intoxicating mix for an extraordinary number of Republican politicians and voters in the Trump era, and it has utterly defined the president himself.
If Trumpism means anything, it would seem to mean this distinct kind of irresponsibility. It’s not the same as populism—which always risks entanglements with demagogues but also has legitimate concerns and priorities that deserve to be heard and should not be confused with one man’s failings. It’s not any particular policy agenda or set of reforms, as President Trump clearly doesn’t care about any of the particular ideas that others have sought to attach to him. Ultimately, Trumpism is a style, an ethic that amounts to a dangerous and highly toxic irresponsibility.
That ethic did not begin with Trump, of course. Forms of it are now widespread, not only in our politics but also throughout many American institutions. It shows itself in a tendency to performative outrage and exaggerated victimhood, both of which are failures to take ownership of one’s particular roles and obligations. And it shows itself in a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy, expression and action.
But Trump has embodied it in an exceptionally concentrated form, and at the highest levels of our government—in a job that uniquely requires responsibility, and is defined by the need to deal with reality. A recovery of responsibility, broadly understood, is called for in many arenas of American life. But putting Trumpism behind us would certainly be a start.